Read on to hear what we thought of J Allard's recent surprisingly candid interview, and then either read the full transcript yourself, or download a movie of the interview direct from Eurofiles. For details on how to make use of our free file service, click here.
When Microsoft announced XNA back at GDC, you could hear a collective groan from the assembled hacks as the stark realisation clanged like a thousand lead balloons that the Xbox 2 wasn't going to be revealed after all. What did we get instead? XNA. XNA? More like WTF.
But, as it turns out, the Redmond-based behemoth was up to its world domination plans once again, and more than a little coy with its vision, as an interview with J Allard last week proved conclusively.
Far from being the suspected re-marketing and re-branding of the DirectX set of middleware tools for PC, Mobile and Xbox, Microsoft has explicit plans to leverage these tools into a something far more ambitious than a mere games console that retails for Ł299 at launch and plays occasionally cool next gen titles. It wants to create the entire standard of gaming across every platform. Scratch that. It wants to own the entire standard of gaming across every platform. This isn't about warring between incompatible standards, it's about creating a standard - a VHS-standard of ubiquity. Don't think 3DO, think DVD. This is, after all, one of the biggest companies in the entire world, and it wants your money.
Microsoft is essentially bored with the current obsession surrounding console cycles, and the obsolescence that happens every five years. It likes the way the film industry does things - the way that grand old business manages to seamlessly project movies into every conceivable corner of the market, from the box office to the handheld and every point in between. It wants gaming to follow the lead of the movies, and coin in the bucks that having invisible standards brings. The consumer doesn't care about the technology when they watch a film, and Microsoft wants the same to apply to videogaming. Hence its point blank refusal to talk about Xbox 2 to date. It wants to talk about the software. It's all about XNA, and only now is the industry waking up to its colossally ambitious plans. It doesn't want to foist you to buy one incompatible device, but it does want gamers to enjoy a gaming 'universe' across a multitude of devices - all complying to the XNA standard, natch. And would it be happy for those devices to be made by companies other than itself.
As Allard points out, gaming is the only major form of electronic entertainment that doesn't offer consumers choice. The 3DO model of providing a reference console design and allowing rival manufacturers to make their own was, he asserts, "ahead of its time". Of course, there would still be a Microsoft version of its console, but the company wants others to join in. Panasonic, Toshiba, JVC, Sharp? Maybe even Sony? Stranger things have happened.
But it's even bigger than just talking about XNA powered next gen consoles. Clearly Microsoft has designs on just about every niche you could squeeze this into. Handhelds, desktop PCs, laptop PCs, airport terminals, mobile phones, PDAs, the list goes on. It really does hurt the brain to think about how far reaching this whole plan is - it's essentially its Windows equivalent for games. An OS for gaming, if you will.
Can it succeed? Usually Microsoft cocks things up at least a couple of times in amusing fashion before it eventually works out a better way of doing things, and it'd be beyond foolish to imagine that the company will steal a march on its rivals just yet.
As even Allard himself confesses, "I think it would be very hard to tap into the next gen, but you can start sneaking up on it". And that's exactly what it'll do. Sneak like Sam Fisher through the shadows of gaming and stealthily snatch pieces of the market until it has it by the neck where it wants it.
But it won't be easy. Certainly, the power of the PlayStation brand is a major stumbling block for Microsoft, as is Nintendo's dogged innovation and loyal following. No one said any of this would be a stroll - but at least it's thinking of a different way of doing things rather than just following the thoroughly predictable model of making a more powerful machine. The differentiators just aren't there anymore - the generational leaps don't have the impact they once had.
Microsoft knows more than ever that the 5G consoles will be much of a muchness for the end user, with similar power, similar graphics and broadly similar games. It needs to think of a different tactic, and XNA appears to be its Trojan Horse to the end user and the elusive mass market that everyone talks about, but very few ever get anywhere near - at least not in the way that the movie industry does every single day. Even the mighty GTA, The Sims and Half-Life play out to puny audiences compared to the top-rated forms of mass entertainment, whatever the masters of spin conjure with their impressive financial reports, which only serve to remind us how bloody expensive games really are.
The way Allard tells it, this is all about the masses. A vision that follows the film industry's example and leverages XNA to become the gaming equivalent of DVD. He's brimming with excitement about the possibilities of inter-compatible gaming universes 'projected' onto all manner of XNA-compatible gaming devices both big and small. Halo everywhere, more or less. It's a big aim, but one you have a hunch that Microsoft could pull off, given time. This motion towards a de-facto standard for gaming is "inevitable for the industry," Allard says, as confidently as ever. "Is that a 30-year inevitability or a three-year inevitability? It's probably closer to the latter," he asserts. Time will tell, but somewhere between the two extremes seems like a fair guess.
The full transcript...
Eurogamer: How important is wireless networking for the future of the Xbox?
J Allard: It's huge - it's one of the centre points of Xbox. Our long-term vision is that Xbox Live is a gaming world that ultimately projects on multiple devices, right? Today we project on Xbox, obviously. You can also get Xbox Live via the web.
Eurogamer: Can you imagine doing a handheld version of the Xbox and them being connected over wireless?
J Allard: I think that strategy is flawed. I think the right strategy for online long term is that you don't even think about building the packaged disk, right? You think about building this gaming universe. Let's rethink Halo for a second. Let's not think about Halo the way we think about it - let's step back and think about Halo the world - this is actually how the Bungie guys think about it.
Let's think about Halo the conflict, let's think about Halo the characters. Let's think about Halo the rules. Okay, from there, let's go [and] project that universe to as many screens as we can, right? Those screens might be cell phones, and the cell phone world, what are you doing in the Halo universe? Well, maybe you're bartering for things. Maybe you're repairing a Warthog, maybe you're doing things that are appropriate for that device that don't happen in Halo today. Maybe you're checking on how your clan is doing - maybe those types of things.
Eurogamer: Are you talking multiple genres?
J Allard: Yeah, all blended in. Now I'm on the PC, now I'm on the web. Maybe I'm managing my clan schedule and our practice tournament and our challenges and we have a little blog that we keep for the team, and maybe I do that on the PC - and that's a PC implementation. Maybe there's an RTS-like view on top of Halo.
Eurogamer: Would you consider releasing these different versions of Halo as standalone products?
J Allard: I think it's always a jacket of the same [Halo] universe. You're in an airport kiosk, and you don't have 3D acceleration; how do you participate there? And then you go home to the 5.1 surround system with the big plasma screen, how do you participate there? Well, it might be different depending on whether you're an Xbox 1 customer or an Xbox 2 customer.
When you can rethink Halo, and actually if you talk to the Halo guys, if you talk to any guys that are nominated for game of the year, they start with the universe, they add the conflict, they add the characters, they add the rules and then they bundle it all up in an experience that's appropriate for one device generally, or multiple devices in the same environment? I think that's really going to change - I think [game developers] are going to think about building these game worlds and projecting them out, and that's the vision of both Live and XNA, to be able to project that out and make it less about the hardware, because if you make it about the hardware the challenge you run is that now the consumer has no choice.
Imagine a cell phone solution which said you could only use one cell phone with this one network carrier - it would never fly! There's such a diversity of devices; Cell Phones, DVD players, car radios, laptops, PCs. Name a hardware industry - television sets, microwave ovens - just keep going. Name one 100 per cent penetration consumer electronics device technology that doesn't offer choice - videogames. It's the only one. It's insane.
I think, and you asked the question earlier, 'would Microsoft get in the handheld space?' I want to get in the handheld space in the following way; I want to be able to go and project our partners' visions of the future of games on as many devices as possible. I don't want to go try and make a device and hold up the handheld and say this is the thing you're going to want to put in your pocket. This is the thing you're going to want to spend $300 on.
Eurogamer: Is this part of your whole XNA 'It's about the software' mantra?
J Allard: Yeah, well because the world is about the software. DVD movies are about the software - it doesn't matter about the hardware. You make hardware choices and say 'this is my bundle of features'. Service is software, and when you make a cell phone choice, it's not about the hardware, maybe the form factor wins in or whatever, but you do a lot of text messaging so you get a Blackberry one, or you want a camera or you wanted this or you wanted that, and it's fundamentally about the service and making sure that that all works. But it's the software that enables all the features that you want, and you pick the right thing and choice is really important to you, and we've got to drive more choice, and I think that rather than trying to drive huge growth of a single device in one category - a handheld I just think is a losing proposition.
Eurogamer: Do you see Xbox, then, as a kind of VHS or DVD style standard for gaming in the future?
J Allard: I think that's very much how the XNA thing could play out. In many ways 3DO was an idea ahead of its time where Trip [Hawkin] said 'what we'll do is do a design reference and everyone will build their own implementation'.
Eurogamer: Would you ever go down that road?
J Allard: Well, I think it was an idea ahead of its time. I think it's inevitable for the industry. Is that a 30-year inevitability or a three year inevitability? It's probably closer to the latter, because the dynamics of our industry are you sell it and you lose money or you break even. You create this enormous brand awareness, right? There isn't an enormous brand awareness around DVD. Nobody created a 'this is what DVD does for you' like they do for PlayStation, like they do for Xbox, so it's going to be hard to break that model, but I think if you want 100 per cent of the homes in the world to go and adopt this as a form of new genre entertainment, it's inevitable because people's preferences are going to drive requirements into the ecosystem that we currently cannot satisfy.
Eurogamer: But this requires other hardware manufacturers to make consoles compatible with your technology...
J Allard: Well, it requires that, but it also requires you to start building enough software distraction that the creators aren't focused on the hardware limitations because they're focused on the software. This is what happened in the PC space if you dial back a hundred years ago, in the PC space, the operating systems were customised to the hardware, the applications were customised to the operating systems, it was a complete mess, prices were incredibly high, adoption was incredibly low, innovation was incredibly low, and it just wasn't a very efficient market.
Boom! Then comes along DOS, you got one hardware implementation - the IBM PC - that drove a lot of adoption, a lot of applications dropped on top of that, we had the software layer in the middle that buffered you from the hardware and then different manufacturers could come in and compete with IBM, and you had the multitude of hardware devices, a multitude of applications, and the network effect that was created was more and more and more applications, more and more and more innovation, more and more and more hardware, lower and lower price points, more and more adoption, more and more money in the overall eco system. Damn that was healthy.
Right now in this market, we're doing it all! Y'know, we're trying to do it all. And for inefficient it's much more like Beta and VHS, and when Beta and VHS had that battle going on the format battle, the adoption of video recorders was very low, the price points were very high, the price points for movies were very high, rentals were very inaccessible, and as soon as the de facto standard of VHS emerged, everybody started manufacturing, not only the recorders, the tapes, and the film industry got behind it -POOM! Everybody needed one! And that's where we need to get to with games, so I think it's an inevitability.
Eurogamer: It's not going to happen in the next gen, though is it?
J Allard: I think it would be very hard to tap into the next gen, but you can start sneaking up on it. A great example was the Panasonic Q, right? I mean, Nintendo kind of tried to do that. They said 'look, consumers want choice - one of the choices that they're going to want is movie playback, well, our target, our sweet spot of our market, it's not important, so it's for this higher end thing. We'll partner with Panasonic and let them do the one that plays movies'. Then that failed for a number of different reasons. 3DO failed for a lot more reasons than the notion.
There are a lot of hard problems you've got to solve, and I think Nintendo failed to solve all the problems, as did 3DO, but I think our industry has to solve them if we want games to be right next to movies. If you want games to be right next to movies you've got to learn a few things about movies, and that is not everybody invents their own camera before they make a movie.
And that is, you go and project that movie, not just on the big screen, but on the DVD, for rental, for purchase, you project it on the television over HBO, and then you do it for pay-per-view, and you do it on aeroplanes, and you figure out how to go and project that vision everywhere you can, and capitalise on [that] so you can afford the investment in making these epics. Right now we're not doing that in gaming either.
I looked at the film industry, and that was a perfect [analogy], a reference point to learn from, and there are a hundred companies making DVD players and the films project onto so many different screens. There are so many different ways. You probably have all enjoyed Spider-Man -we probably all enjoyed it in a very different way, and that's great, because all of that that worked for the industry, and allowed them to spend that much money to make that movie that good, right, and we're not quite there in games. We're stuck.
Eurogamer: Do you believe in the concept of integrating game consoles into home entertainment devices in the same way that Sony seems to be doing at the moment?
J Allard: I think we believe in it, but I think we have a very different view on what the right way to do it is. When I think about home media, Sony talks about the PlayStation as the hub of the home. The first thing we've learned about Xbox in this dimension is that the average number of rooms in Xbox visits is about 1.85, meaning that a kid will bring it down to the big screen TV when his dad's on a business trip for a week, or bring it over to their mum's house for the weekend or his friend's house for a sleepover, so the console moves. If the console moves, is that where the family wants to store their memories? Y'know, their music libraries, their photos, their videos? No!
What happens is on the PC with personal media, it's where you want to store it, it's where you want to manage it, it's where you want to manipulate it - in some cases you make it, and a lot of cases you move it; you burn a CD or you put it on a portable device. The PC is the centre for how you manage media now at home, so what we want to do is project it over to Xbox. We think of Xbox more as the amplifier of those experiences for your TV set, for your bedroom or wherever your Xbox is. We want to be able to receive that media for the players where it makes sense to store that media, which is the PC.
The first step was Music Mixer, where you could go and import your music from the PC, so you could take your PC-based soundtracks and then try to recreate them on your Xbox, you re-rip them, and this year we're going to do a Media Centre extender kit, which basically remotes home movies, recorded television, your music collection and everything else for media centre-based PCs which is this step in the direction. Our strategy is very sound: the PC is going to be the hub of all that media because you want to move it, you want to manage it and manipulate it, and the best place to do that is the PC. I don't want to edit movies on my TV in my living room, and neither do other people - they're content with that entertainment device. I want to watch them, but I don't want to edit them and burn them.
Eurogamer: What's your reaction to the PSP?
J Allard: The PSP? It's big. It's a little bit bigger than I thought it [would be]. Last year I forecast that it would be twice the size of an iPod, and it's 2.8 times the size of an iPod - that's a big device. Volumetrically it's about 2.8 times the size, power consumption is a bit high; the rotating mass media is a real challenge for battery life, so I would worry about [that]. The screen is beautiful, the analogue stick is beautiful, the industrial design is beautiful. I don't know what the market is for it; I struggle with [the] market for it because I think it will be an expensive product I think that UMD is going to have a very difficult adoption - they haven't talked much about the plan, but I think there's a real challenge in adopting that format, much like Minidisc years ago. You go get the studios and you go get the record labels to go support that format.
For me, I want to be able to play my movie, y'know, I wanna have one copy of The Matrix, I don't need four copies on different sizes, and part of the proposition for the movies is to watch the first part of it at home, and watch the second half on the train, and how do you do that? Well, maybe they have a strategy where they're going to have home players that play UMD, and maybe that will be very successful, but I think that's important.
Similarly with music, I think that it's very hard to think about changing that format, because I want it in my car, right? And I also want it on my portable device, so if anything I think the next transition from music is not from the five inch CD to a smaller CD, but from five inch to a hard drive, right? And so I think it's a real challenge for music.
The games proposition, I think is exciting. I think the movie proposition is hard because of the battery and because of the orientation of [motions watching a PSP in front of his face]. Do that for two hours -y'know that's kind of awkward. So, now do I have a stand for it - doesn't that defuse some of the possibilities with it? So that's a little tough, but the game proposition could be exciting and the question - and I think they did the right thing by starting it. By starting it though, who's the audience? 18 to 36 year-old males - I don't know how much time they spend in an environment, just culturally I just don't understand how much time they spend.
Smaller children, school buses, getting driven to soccer practice, all of that, lots of places where I want to play Game Boy if I'm under 15. If I'm over 15 I'm usually with friends, I'm usually doing something very active, I'm usually driving... not driving so much. A lot of people commute on trains and stuff like that so it'll probably be ideal. It's going to be a big ticket item - it's a big device so it'll be interesting to see where it goes. It's an exciting visually stimulating product - the screen is beautiful, but I wonder about it from a pocket point of view.
Eurogamer: What do you think of the Nintendo DS?
J Allard: The DS... is amazingly cool. When they said touch screen, I got a shaky cam version of the press conference and they talked about the touch screen, I was like 'Wow!' I get it, I didn't get it at all leading up to that, but when they said it was a touch screen I was like, not only can you have infinite UI now, where you don't have to add more buttons but you've added more buttons, but now this... it could be a fun gameplay mechanic, I think it might be gimmicky, but what I really get excited about is the social part. Now I can write notes to my friends, so if you think about text messaging for adults, particularly in Europe and Japan and that phenomenon, and now imagine it was school age kids with the wireless networking built into the thing on the bus, on the train, in the classroom, being able to write notes to each other and customise their characters it is perfect for the demographic.
Eurogamer: What do you think of Infinium Labs' Phantom, and the business model of giving the machine away in return for a two year subscription commitment?
J Allard: Good work, yeah. The online gaming thing in general, we're in our infancy. I think with Xbox Live we've learned an enormous amount, we've demonstrated and I think that we've quelled a lot of the scepticism whether people will pay for it, whether broadband was the right choice, is voice an important feature, is Microsoft going to do it, will games support it, can they get the subscribers, I think all those questions are gone now, but if we re-rationalise with the pricing structures, and whether that value is, and how you monetise it... no it's kinda like early cable TV.
And so you talk about this two year subscription thing, that's kinda like early cell phone, right, I mean my first cell phone was free and I paid for a two-year subscription, and it was an $800 device that...
Eurogamer: ...you carried on your shoulder?
J Allard: Right! Exactly, it was a Motorola, it was an absolutely ridiculous purchase in a lot of ways, but now I buy my cell phones and I won't commit to service, and so the service evolves, and so the Infinium thing, the Xbox Live thing, I think that Sony charging no money is suicidal, because more and more of the value proposition of the experience and the engagement for the gamer happens online, and so all of the... y'know, if I go and buy an Xbox to only play Project Gotham Racing and I play it for ten years - we made money out of that customer. If you do that on Sony's model, they don't. So, that's a hallucination, I mean, that's just a pathological case today.
Fast forward four or five years when every game is online and people don't have the time, and the audience gets broader, so people aren't engaging with lots of different properties, there's a real segment out there which will buy three games. There is an untapped market of people that will only buy three gaming experiences and play online like crazy. Sony has got to figure out how to capitalise on those guys. They can either make the games $200, or they can start charging for the service. I think that's an inevitability.
I just think Halo 2 is going to tip our world upside down. I think nobody will go to work on November 9th, I think there will be fights in stores over the last copies, I think it will be one of the biggest pre-orders in the history of mankind.
Eurogamer: How many limited edition units are going out?
J Allard: Not decided. One of the things we're doing now is collecting retail orders now that they know the date, now that they've had hands on. E3 is a reconnaissance mission. I bet on a million pre-orders.
Eurogamer: Do you expect a big increase in Xbox sales?
J Allard: I think we're going to do a bunch of things. We are going to promote this thing like a movie. This is going to be like Sony Pictures goes and promotes Spider-Man. We're thinking of this as a very very important entertainment property, I think that will drive awareness of Xbox. I think Xbox will become hot, even if I don't care about Halo because of the way we're promoting it. I think it will also drive people that have heard about Halo and now see this to drive them to buy the console. Maybe the biggest impact is going to be to drive people towards Live.
Eurogamer: The European Live take-up is nowhere as big as the US - why?
J Allard: That's more infrastructure issues. We've had some performance issues with a couple of the different providers and provision strategies. We've had some stuff with hardware, we've had some configuration stuff, so it's been a little bit harder, plus I don't think we've had a killer app. I'm thrilled that we've got FIFA on Live I think that's a killer app for Europe. I'd love to have Formula One on Live. I wish somebody would do it and Bernie Ecclestone would loosen his wallet a little bit so we could have that experience, I think that would be enormous for gaming and enormous for Live.
Maybe there's a little bit of a language barrier. Maybe that. I think we've done a great job to say 'hey, I'm a racing enthusiast, I want to go race against other German speaking folks' - we've done a really good job to do that, but people want to play with people that they can relate to and there's a community start up issue. I think it's a little bit more challenging.
Eurogamer: Couldn't you ever do a translation app?
J Allard: That'd be cool, huh? What would you translate it into? Native language for everybody? That'd require software!